New Faculty
Omar Galárraga Assistant Professor of Community Health Credit: Mike Cohea/Brown University

Omar Galárraga
Assistant Professor of Community Health

By David Orenstein  |  September 1, 2010  |  Email to a friend

Economics has been maligned as “the dismal science” but to picture something really bleak, try to imagine health care policy uninformed by economic insights.

Omar Galárraga would rather not. The new assistant professor of community health employs rigorous, cost/benefit economic analyses to help improve health care delivery around the world, particularly for poor people and those afflicted with HIV/AIDS.

Take, for example, the following dilemma in Mexico: Sex workers, who are among the highest-risk victims in the country’s HIV/AIDS epidemic, get paid more for having unprotected intercourse. Their rates of infection, meanwhile, influence those of the broader population. In his work as a researcher at the National Institute of Public Health in Mexico (INSP), an appointment he will retain as a visiting professor there, Galárraga has been studying whether the workers will protect themselves and stay disease-free in exchange for regular payments of grocery vouchers. The idea is to take enough economic pressure off the workers that they don’t have to make risky choices.

A native of Ecuador, Galárraga was struck at an early age by the pervasive poverty he saw around him. To launch his personal war on poverty, he came to Washington, D.C., as an undergraduate to study economics. When he finished his masters degree in the field in 1996 at American University, he ended up working on a five-nation study of the economics leading to widespread malnutrition.

The association between economic disadvantage and inadequate health was difficult to ignore.

“More than 1.2 billion people around the world don’t get enough vitamins and minerals to have a healthy life,” he said. “That’s how I became interested in health economics. One very specific way that poverty manifests itself is through ill health and disease.”

In 1999 Galárraga took a job in Ethiopia with the U.N. Economic Commission for Africa, and there he came face to face with the HIV/AIDS epidemic.

“There were young people who one day looked very healthy and the next day they were very ill and soon they would die,” Galárraga said.

He was moved to help, but he realized he still didn’t have all the intellectual tools. He returned to the United States to earn a masters and a Ph.D. in health economics at Johns Hopkins University. In his 2007 thesis he showed that giving low-income, HIV-positive women not only anti-retroviral drugs but also antidepressants could improve both their health and their employment prospects.

In 2006, Galárraga joined the INSP at what proved to be an exciting time. Mexico had recently launched some major social programs, including anti-poverty programs and an expansion of medical coverage to virtually all its uninsured citizens. Galárraga has studied the impact of these programs on areas including adolescent risk behavior, diabetes management, and maternity care.

Now he joins Brown at another exciting time. Not only does the University offer a plethora of colleagues and potential collaborators who focus on various aspects of the HIV/AIDS epidemic, but Brown is also working toward a new school of public health.

“You can feel the optimism and the dynamism that you have right now,” he says. “It’s nice to be part of a group that is creating something new and to try to help that new endeavor.”

An act of creation that could help improve global health is anything but dismal.